The Truth Behind Overcrowding at GMSD Schools

Getting our own municipal schools in Germantown wasn’t easy. Voters in each of the suburban towns and cities approved referendums on forming municipal school districts in August 2012. But the results were voided months later in a decision by U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays and the Tennessee state legislature responded in 2013 by passing a new law that lifted the statewide ban on the creation of such school districts. With the new law, aldermen in each of the six towns set a new election date for the same ballot questions.

After these legal battles and two votes of the citizens, the Germantown Municipal School District (GMSD) opened its doors in 2014. Since then, the district has grown, and the city has benefited from these excellent schools. Overall, the district has grown 638 (15%) resident students in its first four years according to the District’s 2017 Facilities Plan.

Achievements

During those four years, the District has achieved quite a lot.

  • Houston High School has the highest public high school district ACT average in the state for the third consecutive year
  • GMSD was named a District of Distinction in 2017 for work on Exceptional Student Education Transitional Experience
  • Houston Middle School counselors were recognized with the RAMP recognition from ASCA this year (the only middle school in Tennessee to meet qualifications for the counseling program award)
  • Memphis Business Journal recognized Houston High as both the Most Challenging High School and the #1 Best Public High School
  • Each year, Houston High sets new records for students in the HHS 30+ ACT club

Because of these accolades, GMSD has become a school district of choice for many young families as evidenced by how quickly sold signs replace for sale signs in Germantown. Since 2013, the average number of days on the market for Germantown homes has decreased 65% from 113 to just 40, according to statistics from the City of Germantown.

Capacity

As a result, many are concerned about overcrowding at our schools and wonder what the GMSD administration is doing about it. You may even see or hear some candidates campaigning on this topic.

In the Spring of 2017, the district hired a professional demographer to project enrollment for the district over the next ten years. If you want to read the entire study, it can be found here.

Total district enrollment is forecasted to increase by 286 students, or 4.9%, between 2016-17 and 2021-22. Total enrollment is forecasted to decline by 108 students, or -1.8%, from 2021-22 to 2026-27.

But what does this mean for our current schools’ capacity? Many are concerned that the schools are overcrowded, and students are suffering as a result. Let’s take a look at capacity.

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Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 8.21.01 PM.pngMaximum capacity is defined as the number of students that can be accommodated within a classroom. The utilization rate determines how efficiently the student population and programs operate within the available classroom space. Utilization rates are at or above 90 percent at each school. The district strives for enrollment at each school to be below the maximum capacity allowed by state standards and as such has defined optimal capacity as 2 students per teacher below the state maximums.

To achieve an optimal capacity, the district committed to various options to balance enrollment among the elementary and middle schools. Utilization rates currently above the desired thresholds and are being addressed temporarily through the use of modular classrooms at Dogwood and Farmington. This is a legacy solution inherited from Shelby County Schools. Removing portables has been a high priority item for GMSD as evidenced by the investments at Riverdale which facilitated the removal of portables there.

However, as seen in the maps above, the opening of the new Forest Hill Elementary School in 2019 will provide relief to Dogwood, Farmington, and Riverdale Elementary. Rezoning students at Dogwood, Farmington, and Riverdale will relieve capacity issues at these schools, allow the removal of modular classrooms that have been added to Dogwood and Farmington, and allow the district to explore staffing at a more optimal capacity for teacher to student ratio.

GMSD is watching closely the growth at the middle school level as well. With support from the City, they are preparing to fund a $5 million expansion at Houston Middle School as soon as fiscal year 2020. The absolute need will be determined once GMSD has carefully reviewed growth projections, the results of revising the school transfer policy and the effects of zoning changes planned for the 2019-2020 school year.

Support from the City of Germantown

In fiscal year 2019, the City of Germantown’s general fund budget allocates $6.9 million to directly support GMSD. This includes $2.5 million in maintenance of effort funding required by the state.

What is maintenance of effort? If you remember our previous post The Truth About School Funding and Sales Taxes, we explain the term “Maintenance of Effort” (“MOE”) generally refers to a requirement placed upon many federally funded grant programs that the State Education Agency (SEA) and Local Education Agencies (LEAs) or school districts, demonstrate that the level of State and local funding remains constant from year to year.(1)

Our public schools are mostly funded by revenue generated primarily from state sales tax and county property tax. Each county in Tennessee is required to operate and contribute funding for a public system of education. In order for a municipality to operate its own separate and independent district, the municipality must provide SUPPLEMENTAL funding. It is up to the municipal governing body to determine the amount and source of supplemental funding. We should all thank the administrators who crafted the wording of the resolution because they understood this and thus worded the referendum accordingly.

This is why the fiscal policy of tying school funding to a variable revenue source is dangerous. When sales tax revenues drop the only other source to pay that obligation is your property taxes. In a recession, not only would you have the negative impact of a down economy, the city would be in a position to be forced to raise your property taxes to meet the MOE requirements.

Additionally, the City of Germantown provides an additional $4.4 million to cover costs related to student safety and continuing the improvement of our school facilities.

More specifically:

  • $1 million for replacement of the failing boiler system at Riverdale School with an additional $1.5 million included in the fiscal year 2020 budget to complete the work
  • $1.36 million in debt service payments for the new elementary school currently under construction
  • $560,000 for school resource officers and crossing guards at each school
  • $500,000 for safety and security improvements at each school
  • $440,000 in debt service payments for the Riverdale addition
  • $355,000 court-mandated annual payment to Shelby County Schools
  • $200,000 each year for the next five years to help fund Houston Arts and Athletics Foundation field house construction and auditorium renovation projects at Houston High School.

As we head toward the November election, remember that your city government and the GMSD School Board actually has been planning for overcrowding in our schools and for any scenario growth in our city may throw at us.

Reference

(1)   Maintenance of Effort: The Basics 

 

 

 

Tax Cuts?

  • Germantown is committed to long term financial stability with five year financial plans not one year budgets.
  • This planning method provides stability in the tax rate for those on fixed incomes, demonstrates ability to service debt to financial markets and allows flexibility in changing economic conditions.
  • At the June 11, 2018 BMA meeting, Alderman Massey made a motion to reduce the property tax rate by $0.11 without collaboration with city staff and no fiscal analysis to support his position. (motion failed 2-3, Massey & Barzizza voting yes)
  • Estimated impact of this cut is $1.8-$1.9 million to the city budget, and there was no recommendation on how to meet those cuts.
  • Disregarding a long-term plan would likely require annual tax increases and also reduce the stability of our finances. Essentially forcing the city to live “paycheck to paycheck.”

Municipal finances are complicated. As I discussed in the piece on school funding, the city is funded by multiple sources. The majority of that funding comes from property tax. In 2017, the Germantown tax rate was $1.97. Now how your bill is calculated is a little more complicated. The county assesses the value of your property and then you pay tax on 25% of that value. So, a $250k house at 25% is $62,500 of assessed value. You then divide that by 100 (the rate is per $100 of value) and multiply by $1.97 for a tax bill of $1,231. For a comparison, commercial properties pay 40% of the value of their property.

Near the end of the June 11, 2018 BMA meeting, Alderman Massey began questioning the City Administrator and Chairman of the FAC about how they came up with the tax rate. This meeting was the second reading of the budget, certainly a proper time to ask questions but probably not the best time to make fundamental changes to the budget that will be in place on July 1 or just 20 days from the meeting. The budget process has been ongoing for months. He has been at some of these meetings. He knows the work the City and FAC are doing to pull a budget together and it appears to have never approached the FAC or city staff with his proposal. What proposal? Alderman Massey made a motion to reduce the property tax rate by $0.11.

Link to YouTube Video of Massey’s remarks

Rightfully, he was questioned about his support for this cut. This is a 5.6% cut to the city’s primary source of funding. Do you have a budget in your household? I hope so. In essence, what Alderman Massey is proposing is to make the city live pay check to pay check. That would likely require annual tax increases and also reduce the stability of our finances. The city budgets for stability. The city administrator clearly states “we don’t do one year budgets we do a five year plan.” Admittedly, I don’t know all of their process but from the City Administrator’s presentation they clearly budget five year capital plans and do high level expense projections to at least that term. The debt projections presented went out to 2048. I can tell you that in corporate finance we look out 5-10 years and sometimes longer.

The city’s commitment to long term financial stability helps on many fronts. The idea is that our tax rates are stable for 5-6 years at a time and some times longer. That stability allowed the city to make it through the great recession without a tax increase. This happens by being able to build up reserves and then draw down on them as time goes on. It works much like your escrow account for taxes and insurance on a house.

The stability this method offers allows people on fixed incomes to budget accordingly and shows the financial markets we are a responsible community and have the ability to service our debts. These funding levels help to dictate the rates we are charged when we borrow money. It also gives the city flexibility to adjust to changing economic conditions as they did in 2008. These are all the reasons Germantown wins awards for their budget processes.

So what support and analysis did Alderman Massey bring for his proposed cut? None, merely a statement that “the ratios, I think, bear out that this will not change our ability to maintain the funding.” Budgets are not built on ratios, they are the product of observations and trends. As I said before, this process has been going on for months. A team of financial professionals from both the City and Financial Advisory Commission (FAC) have worked and reviewed the budget to get to this point. It clearly appears he has not asked anyone on staff to look at this and he has no analysis to support his claims. Alderman Massey has asked for transparency in government and transparency would be evaluating this proposed reduction thoroughly prior to voting on it. I am very concerned that there was no supporting documentation for this proposed cut and two Aldermen (Massey & Barzizza) voted for this not knowing the potential impact.

This is the City of Germantown’s budget ladies and gentlemen. The budget as presented projects property taxes of $32.8 million of property tax revenue. That implies that at the proposed rate of $1.95 (after a $0.02 reduction from 2017 for assessor adjustments) each penny of the tax rate generates $168,000 of revenue for the city. The proposed tax cut would result in a reduction of approximately $1,850,256. The city is required to have a balanced budget. I would like to see where the proposed cuts would come from to meet this type of reduction. Do they come from our ISO Class 1 Fire Department, award winning police department or any of the other great services offered by our city?

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